Douglas Dayton played key role in shaping Target Corp.

Douglas Dayton
An undated photo of Douglas Dayton, a founder of Target Stores and uncle of Gov. Mark Dayton. He died of cancer on Friday, July 5, 2013.
Photo courtesy of the Dayton family

Douglas Dayton, the first president of what became the Target Corporation, helped transform retail in America and continued a Dayton family tradition in philanthropy. He died Friday at age 88 after a bout with cancer.

Dayton was part of a family that helped shape the Twin Cities. His father, George Dayton, was president of the Dayton Dry Goods Company. George Dayton had five sons, and Douglas was the youngest.

"From the time he was a young child, he was left behind when all the big boys got to go on the train with the workmen to state fairs to show the Belgium horses and the cattle," Wendy Dayton, his wife of 16 years, said. "And he spent all of his years trying to live up to his older brothers."

As a teenager at The Blake School in Minneapolis Dayton was voted most gentlemanly, best dressed and most likely to succeed. During World War II, he served in General Patton's army. He received a Purple Heart and a French Legion award.

In 1948, Dayton went to work for his father's company. Two years later the five brothers inherited the business when their father died. Together they built the Southdale Center in Edina, the world's first all-indoor shopping mall.

Then, said Wendy Dayton, her husband had the idea to create a different kind of retail store.

"It was not openly embraced in the beginning but he really felt that with other discounters starting to pop up around the country, that that would start to eat into the department store business. And he felt that it was important and timely to enter that arena."

The first Target opened in Roseville in 1962 -- the same year the forerunners to Walmart and Kmart debuted. Unlike traditional department stores, all of Target's cash registers were at the front. The merchandise was marketed as discounted but also high-quality. As president, Dayton steered the company through some early ups and downs while opening additional stores in St. Louis Park, Crystal and Duluth.

Ellen Green, who co-wrote "The Birth of Target" with the oldest of the five brothers, Bruce Dayton, interviewed Douglas Dayton in 2007.

"He said, 'By 1965 we reached our goal for the Target in Bloomington -- $10 million in sales. I said I think we can do $100 million. Later I told my brother [Ken] we could do a billion.'"

Before he retired in 1974, Dayton helped establish a corporate giving program at Target that now donates $4 million a week to schools and nonprofits.

Dayton made volunteering a big part of his life, serving on the boards of the Urban League, Summit Academy OIC, the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center, Urban Coalition of Minneapolis, and The Nature Conservancy. In an interview with the University of St Thomas in 2011, he said he was following family tradition.

"My father always said even though he wasn't particularly interested in the arts, he said if we didn't have the symphony and arts institute, we'd be a cow town," Dayton said. "My grandfather before him, Bruce, asked him once how much money he'd given and he told him. And he said after that I quit counting. So it comes from a long tradition and we thrive with the community, prosper with it, we give back to it."

Dayton's longest-running commitment was to the YMCA. He helped the Twin Cities chapter raise millions of dollars to open new locations. The current president of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, Glen Gunderson, said Dayton increased efficiency by helping the organization think more like a business. Gunderson added that as board chair in the 1960s, Dayton brought community leaders together to focus on social justice.

"He particularly challenged them to focus on inner city and urban issues. If you think about that time -- it was a very tumultuous time and a time of significant segregation in our cities, and he focused very early on [those] issues and got other organizations and leaders to think the same way," Gunderson said.

Dayton used to visit his remaining brother every week. Bruce Dayton is now 94.

"He was a good guy. Very loyal friend to me. The five brothers were all very close, and we were the two last of the five," Bruce Dayton said.

Over the past few years Dayton could often be seen wearing a straw hat and driving his 1946 Ford tractor as he tended 40 acres of restored prairie near his home southwest of the Twin Cities. Wendy Dayton said he planned to give the land to the state so it would be preserved. She said it was a final act of giving back.

Dayton also is survived by his four children and many grandchildren, as well as his nephew, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.

Target President and CEO Gregg Steinhafel issued the following statement:

"On behalf of the entire Target team, we extend our heartfelt condolences to the family and many friends of Douglas Dayton. Along with his brothers and cousin, Doug was instrumental in helping to guide the strategic direction of Dayton Hudson Corporation for many years and institutionalize the values that are at the heart of Target Corporation today. We are thankful for Doug's leadership, and his many contributions to our company and community."

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